Neil, I just remembered this e-mail / post (your blog, too, is Banned in Beijing, so I couldn't read it last month) --~~~~~
You make a comparison w/ video games (I'm a fan, too, but less these days, although Oblivion dominated my sleeping & waking for 2 weeks, in '06, even though I recognized it lacked depth; but, such a pretty drug...), and I've often made a comparison to music, especially rap. My thinking was, why can't people agree on precise artistic standards, then follow them? Every book review I've read mentioned so many different elements ("humanity," "compassion," etc.) that, both then and now, seemed not only non-quantifiable, but irrelevant. To me, it was kinda like arguing over someone's personal aesthetic: should I get a tattoo of a star, or a butterfly? six pack abs, or not? red pants, or blue? That's not in realm of objective standards, merely taste, and should only come up in 1) minor comments, 2) more 'personal' essays, where the author not only touches on a work's artistic merit, but in what way the "compassion,"etc., influenced him, or how it relates to broader, greater things. Merely pointing out "compassion," or whatever, is as silly as emphasizing that a poem is written in blank verse. So what? It must go somewhere.
In rap, however, both in online reviews and face-to-face conversations, no one would have any of that shit. To call a mediocrity like 2Pac "human" or "compassionate" was, besides being a lie, simply embarrassing - you're either good, or you're not; everything else is irrelevant, even though, too often, people worship these artists as icons of some kind of cultural significance beyond art. So, why couldn't people apply the same thinking to art in general, and come away with a precise way to discuss writing?
Dan often gets angry at people's "stupidity" about these things, but I don't think it's stupidity, nor is it malice - it's usually ignorance, although though I'm sure at least a few writers recognize they have no talent. Also, it partly depends on your environment, too. When I was 16, I really had no one around me to discuss literature, etc., with - I was some anomaly that accidentally picked up a life-changing book, and began reading then. The fact that I became interested in literature meant I had to do the usual: read the NY Times reviews, online reviews, comments on Amazon, or books by critics, such as Dale Peck's Hatchet Job. As far as I could tell, everyone was discussing the "humanity," or "post-modern ennui," "cultural centers," etc. -- I thought, is this it? Does this mean "higher arts," such as literature, must be discussed in intangibles?
Well, it was hard to think otherwise if people more educated than me were so casual w/ such nonsensical phrases. Back then, I confused education w/ analytical ability, even though my interest in politics and debate allowed me to argue against most of my high school teachers with great ease. The obvious sometimes takes a while to sink in, and only now, after 3 yrs of college, I fully see how ill-equipped most professors are to discuss literature, educated or not. Some things really cannot be taught, at least not directly - you have to figure them out on your own. This builds self-trust and genuine understanding, without any of the posturing that false self-trust comes with. Regardless, it's hard to get over this garbage, even if you mean well - no matter how intelligent you are, you will be surrounded by frauds w/ lots of charisma, who will try to draw you into their nonsense. The question is, are you lucky and/or discriminating enough to find your way out? Even Dan was, at one time, drawn to violence and Paco (of his memoirs), for similar reasons -- he merely got out in time. I see art in a similar way - how many intelligent people are drawn to faux philosophy, faux standards, and artistic muddles, simply because this is the norm, and forever flounder in it? All of their potential is sapped, and if they realize it eventually, it's often too late. And, how many intelligent kids are forced into violence, and never find their way out, so that, later on, adults say: "My God, how -- he was so intelligent! Didn't he know better?" Maybe he did know better, but only by instinct, not in detached, calculated fact. Intelligence is not really the issue here.
It was probably Nabokov's tangible approach to literature that got me questioning all of the above. Problem was, although I got over mainstream criticism, I later realized that Nabokov, too, for all of his education, and for all of his CORRECT steps in the right direction, was incomplete - he was not a great critic, and often not a great writer, because, in many ways, his vision was just as myopic as a pedant's, albeit in less offensive, less flagrant ways. He took the "practical" aspects of writing to such an extreme that he lost all self-control, larding his books w/ pointless, albeit beautiful, details, and refusing to engage in philosophy, as well as any real direction, thus lacking substance, while attacking writers greater than him. (I want to review his autobiography for Cosmoetica, kinda in the 'personal essay' vein, with two parts: his criticism, and artistic view of things, and how it contributes to but mostly detracts from his fiction.) I think this ability to learn from someone like Nabokov is important, and the fact that I can rationally reject this teacher after learning all that's valuable, is indicative of my growth, with no emotional quibbles over what I see is RIGHT.
This is why I recommend Cosmoetica to friends as well as professors - the criticism is level-headed, and, most of all, correct. The poetry is great. You can't really find this elsewhere, and this is easily provable. No idols, no genuflection, merely discussion of what counts. It might get people out of their own muddles, before a potentially great poet becomes a non-entity. So, thanks, Dan.
And Neil, English classes suck in college. It's good I have a second major, or else I would have lost my mind.
I was just consoling Jess the other day about people's stupidity. In some senses, ignorance is the better term, but, as when dealing with really messed up people, forget the Latin, saying they're fucked up covers it.~~~~~
I mentioned to Jess the fable (some claim Aesop, others not) of the scorpion and the frog, and how, after conning the frog into taking him across a river (after the frog's claim that the scorpion would sting him and they'd both die), the scorpion indeed stings the frog and kills them, adding to the dying frog's final despair that he could not help himself, because it's in my nature.
My nature is to abandon the self and get objective about my or others' art. It's the only way to clarity. Some, like Art Durkee on this list (or Oprah, PoMo elitists, PC idiots, or other devotees of gurus) claim this cannot be done, but offer absolutely no proofs.
There's the old claim that if God made the universe who made God? Well, if one answers God always was, then God is obviated because one can say the cosmos always was and avoid the extra step. Similarly, people will argue that since one can never be anyone but oneself, objectivity is impossible. But this is a clear fallacy, because it presumes that objectivity has to be total. It might be true that one can never be objective about things related to oneself, but, since the self is an infinitesimile fleeting thing, that leave quite a bit of the rest of the cosmos that objectivity can be used upon.
And I won't even go into the silliness of the person who argues for subjectivity, thereby obviating their own argument for, if they really believed all was subjective,m they'd have no incentive to put forth the point.
And, yes, my years at the UPG especially showed me that creativity cannot be taught, and very few people are truly creative. It's a thing folk confuse with being 'special and stems from the same inner vacuity- one may be wholly unique to the 100th % (that's genetic reality), but if 99.5% of you is similar to others, you can hardly be called 'special.'
Specialness is the degree to which one differs, and usually in the positive sense.
The worst thing I'd want for any fan or reader of my writings to think is that I want them to ape me. Anyone claiming that is reading into my stuff their own biases and desires for guruship. I want to show people how to think for themselves, and only by using objective measutres can that be done. If one refuses objectivity one is a zombie- a kid with a pink mohawk who thinks he's special.
Think for oneself, and argue one's points- esp. if they are one's own, not aped replies. What is really depressing is seeing how many lit or film critics say ZERO of any depth or uniquity because they have no ability to think for themselves- critical cribbing is what I call it.
You make great points. Critics will argue the "honesty" and "compassion" in one's works, but then go nowhere as to what exactly works or not. Yet in my own book I can say that I had both those things (though that has nothing to do with quality itself) and when that reader was approached with it, she didn't "like" it because it was not the "honesty" she would imagine for herself. In other words, they wanted a character that would be like them. I'm not like anyone else. Why would I want to be? It is odd that they're chant about the importance of "truth" and "honesty" but no one ever wants to say anything of substance, just take safe stances like "racism is bad."
Most things in life do not carry any meaningful significance. One has to create one's own significance. Or else, all goes unforgotten, "a fart in the windstorm," as my grandma used to say. I agree about Nabokov, as Lolita had some "pretty writing" here and there, but his fans are obsessive. He was pretentious and always playing an act. And he managed to get fans to buy into it. I said it was a good solid book, but by no means great, not to mention the opening line is a terrible cliche and that intro by that fake Academic is just flourish.
Thanks for the discussion, D&A--the words cheered me, as smart words often do. Thank you for spreading the Cosmoetica word.
I'm lucky to be in a newsletter with so many intelligent people (this isn't the first time I've quoted one of these e-mail discussions). Anyhow, it's July now; hope everyone had a nice 4th. I played in an orchestra that accompanies the fireworks, which was fun (as always).